10:18 am Nov. 19, 2012
Perhaps it only seems like the New York Knicks have become Rasheed Wallace's team, following an 88-76 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday improved the team's record to 7-1.
But with his leadership role on the court, his popularity with the media, and his ever-increasing part in the team's rotation, Wallace has laid claim to one of the feature roles for a Knicks team that just a few weeks ago, it wasn't certain he'd even make. He even delivered the thank-you message to fans who contributed to the team's charity, Garden of Dreams.
Think of Wallace's emergence as the antithesis to the Jeremy Lin story. Lin was unlikely to emerge with the Knicks last season, because he'd never done anything. Wallace was equally unlikely to emerge, because he'd already done everything.
Consider that Wallace, when the Knicks invited him to training camp, hadn't played in the N.B.A. in two years. The 38-year-old enjoyed a storied career, which included an N.B.A. championship with the Pistons and consistent playoff runs with virtually every team he played with. It was impossible to know exactly how much he could offer the Knicks, and a preseason which saw him sit for each exhibition game didn't provide much information, either.
So when Wallace played for the final three-plus minutes in each of the team's first two lopsided wins to start the season, with the crowd calling for him and Wallace aggressively shooting once he entered, his role as a crowd favorite and team mascot appeared to be both his landing spot for the season, and also his ceiling.
"I accept my Brian Scalabrine role," Wallace said following the season opener. "I'm cool with it."
But that changed almost immediately. Wallace played 13 minutes in the team's third game, and more in every game since, including 24 minutes against Memphis on Friday night and 16 minutes against Indiana on Sunday. He's become the first big man off the bench for coach Mike Woodson, ahead of Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas.
And he hasn't been playing like a role player once he enters. Of all the Knicks playing regularly, only Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton are using more plays than Wallace. To put that in perspective, it means Wallace is shooting more often than J.R. Smith, who is playing a smarter game this year, but is still, after all, J.R. Smith.
And he's doing so effectively. Wallace has a 20.9 Player Efficiency Rating, also higher than every Knick earning regular minutes except for Anthony, and matching exactly his P.E.R. during his finest season in the league, back in 2000-01. He's not playing nearly the minutes he did back then, of course, but the Knicks are getting peak-level Wallace when he plays.
Much of his time has come at the expense of Marcus Camby, but that seems likely to change, with Camby's rebounding and interior defense providing a natural complement to Wallace's inside-outside scoring game.
The real problem the Knicks will face, when it happens, is what the return of Amar'e Stoudemire will mean for Wallace. If Wallace is still playing this well, how can the Knicks justify phasing him out for Stoudemire? Will they break up the starting lineup instead, moving Anthony from the power forward spot where he thrived last season and this season?
And if they find a way to divest themselves of Stoudemire, are they really willing to tie this much of their fate to a 38-year-old who has been out of the game for two years?
These are good problems to have, obviously. But that we're even asking such questions is reflective of just how much this team has become Rasheed Wallace's Knicks, about as absurd a proposition as Linsanity ever was.